Yuquan Shenxiu (玉泉神秀) (606?-706) (Wade–Giles: Shen-hsiu; Japanese: Jinshū) was one of the most influential Chan Buddhist masters of his day, a patriarch of the "East Mountain Dharma Gate" (Chinese: tung-shan fa-men) —
the East Mountain Teaching was given the more recent designation as the "Northern School" by Shenhui (670-762). Shenxiu was Dharma-heir of Hongren (弘忍) (601–674) (Wade Giles: Shih Hung-jen; Japanese: Gunin),
honoured by Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690-705) of the Tang Dynasty, and alleged author of the Guan Xin Lun (Treatise on the Contemplation of the Mind, written between 675-700), a text once attributed to Bodhidharma.
He was educated in the Chinese classics and Taoism and became a Buddhist at the age of thirteen when he went to the government granaries at Kaifeng during a famine to plead the release of grain to the starving population.
After some seven years of a homeless life visiting the famous mountain centres of China, Shenxiu took the full precepts of Buddhist monk in 625 at Tankong monastery in Luoyang(洛阳), the Buddhist centre at the end of Silk Road since the second century.
Traces of his activities for the next twenty-five years were lost, the Chuan Fabao Ji (傳法寶紀) (Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-treasure) claim that Shenxiu studied the Buddhist regulations (vinaya) and ceremonies and devoted himself to the practice of meditation (dhyāna) and the development of wisdom (prajñā).
In 651 he began to study under Hongren.
The aforementioned Chuan Fabao Ji states that he studied with Hongren for six years, thereby leaving in 657, before the arrival of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, with whom Shenxiu supposedly had the famous verse-writing contest. (see below)
His welcome in 701 was by all accounts quite spectacular.
For the last five years of his life, Shenxiu traveled between the two capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an, preaching the Buddhist Dharma before passing away at his monastery, Tumen Si, sitting in meditation on February 28, 706.
The Lengqie Shi Zi Ji (楞伽師資記)(Records of the Lankavatara Masters) state that his last words were ch’u-ch’u chiao, which Professor Seizan Yanagida translates as “the teachings of the expedient means have been made direct”
The reigning Emperor Zhongzong (705-710) granted the posthumous title Datong Chanshi(大通禪師) (Greatly Penetrating Dhyāna Master), only the second time in Chinese Buddhism and the first for three hundred years that this imperial honour had been bestowed.
The account given in the Platform Sutra is as follows.
Shenxiu's verse read:
The body is the bodhi tree The mind is like a bright mirror's stand. At all times we must strive to polish it and must not let dust collect.
Shenxiu was unable to compose another verse.
There he asked someone to write his own verse.
Huineng's verse read
Bodhi originally has no tree. The bright mirror also has no stand. Fundamentally there is not a single thing. Where could dust arise?
The account says that publicly Hongren denigrated this verse but later, in private, he taught Huineng the true meaning of the Diamond Sutra, thereby awakening Huineng to the sutra's profound teaching.
This verse writing contest was used by Shenhui (神會)(684-758) (Wade–Giles: Shen-hui; Japanese: Kataku Jinne) to malign Shenxiu and his so-called "Northern School" as being gradualist and was instrumental in the split of Chan into "gradualist" (jian jiao 漸教) and "sudden" (dun jiao 頓教) schools.
Although Shenxiu was labeled a teacher of the “Northern School”(Beizong 北宗) of Chan in subsequent histories of Chan, he saw himself as teaching in the “East Mountain”(Dongshan 東山) tradition of Hongren.
He re-interpreted the scriptures as metaphors of “skilful means” (Sanskrit: upāya; fangbian 方便) for “contemplation of the mind," (kan xin 看心) advocating the attainment of Buddhahood in all daily activities, here and now.
Every act was seen as religious practice.
A “Northern School” text abbreviated as the Five Skillful Means (Wu Fangbian 五方便)states: “in purity there is not a single thing…Peaceful and vast without limit, its untaintedness is the path of bodhi (बोधि).
Even though Shenxiu and the “Northern School” were subsequently attacked as teaching a gradualist approach to enlightenment, the Guanxin Lun (觀心論) ([[Treatise on the Contemplation}} of the Mind]]), a Northern text which Zen scholar John McRae claims is “unquestionably written by him [[[Shenxiu]]]” (though there is no direct historical evidence) emphatically states:
Why worry about your white hair (i.e., about your age)?” Shenxiu’s exhortations to constant, unremitting practice gave Shenhui the opening to attack the teaching as “gradualist” (a charge which would ironically apply to the entire Dongshan tradition of the Fourth and Fifth Patriarchs).
Though there may be some truth to this account, the historical context shows that the dominance of Southern Chan was largely aided by the regime for political support from lower classes, during the watershed events of the An Shi Rebellion.
Shenhui, a follower of Huineng, gained official support and posthumous recognition as the Seventh Patriarch (which by extension made Huineng the Sixth) through his successful efforts in selling ordination certificates to raise funds for the drained imperial treasury.